If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have been to, at this point in 73. I am now sitting on a train roaming from Tbilisi to Batumi Georgia and writing about my experiences in Kazakhstan and its two major cities, Almaty and the city formerly known as Astana
I had little idea about the country of Kazakhstan, I know a few travelers that have participated in bike journeys though a collection of countries known as the “Stans” along the Silk Highway though Central Asia but my knowledge was very limited. Id decided on Kazakhstan for a few reasons, one that it was quite modernised in comparison to some of the surrounding countries and another was Astana is the newest capital city in the world. Tip I always use Google images before I head to a place to get a better idea of what I’ll be looking at, and Astana is one of those places that looked very intriguing, so Kazakhstan was my choice, also no visa is required for up to 30 days unlike other surrounding countries.
Before heading to Astana my first stop was Almaty in the south, Almaty is the former capital and is the southern region of the country, it is also the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of 1.8 million. It’s a very popular destination for outdoor adventurists I mentioned earlier, while I like some adventure myself, cycling the Silk Highway has no appeal to me so I based myself in Almaty for six days and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I arrived late at night in my hostel and I was the only traveler staying there, there were a few students and hostel staff so I quickly determined there would not be much in the way of hostel activities so I would have to socialise around the city myself. To be fare it is winter after Tip Kazakhstan is more a tourist destination for the summer which means a lot of tours and backpackers are available, just not when I happened to be there,.
My first full day essentially involved walking around the city’s main attractions themselves, though it was winter did not find the weather unpleasant and it was relatively sunny. The city itself is a mix of some very modern buildings and older Soviet architecture as the country is formerly party of the USSR and there is a strong Russian influence, also Russian is the major language used.. Almaty doesn’t really have a central downtown area; the city is quite spread out and most of the attractions centered around where I was located. The first stop was the Central State Museum, an Soviet designed building which includes exhibits on the country’s history, from pre historic man, a gold exhibit and highlights of the World Expo that was hosted in the country in 2017 (which I will go into further detail later). Next, I headed down to Zenkov Cathederal in the park, quite a spectacular looking piece of architecture and is believed to be the only wooden cathedral in the work, unfortunately it was closed for renovation so I could not enter. I walked past some Kazakh Soviet designed war memorials to Gorky (Central) Park, the central park where there were fun rides and lots of parents with young children being entertained, there were a lot of people about of which I figured were mostly local people,
The evenings I mostly headed to a local expat bar, with the hostel being quiet and English conversations being in short supply so I figured this was my best choice. I had excellent evenings there, particularly Friday and Saturday as there isn’t much nightlife activity during the week There were a few British people about but I ended up talking to Kazakhs mostly, either the friendly bar staff who introduced me to horse milk (an acquired taste) and locals that liked speaking English, being an Australian there in winter was quite a rarity, most people assuming I was American until I explained where I was from. My conversations were mainly about Australian spiders and snakes, something to do with local television featuring Aussie documentaries, the wonderful nature around Almaty and why I would go to Astana, the city not being so popular in the south. Note the Kazakh national dish is horse, they love them, ride them, the national sport involves horses and they also eat the meat and drink the milk, it’s a very sour taste, the milk that is, not the meat.
Other outdoor activities included going to the Medeu Ice Skating Ring south of the city and easily accessible by public bus about 20km in distance. The bus ascended into the mountain range and our first stop was the ring built between 1949-51 Nestled between the mountains it makes for quite a spectacular location and there were hundreds of active skaters circling around, mostly teenagers and young people. There was also a rather large DJ set up pumping current house music which made for quite a festive atmosphere. I had to pass on participating as I have never ice skated before and was concerned about any potential leg break which would cut my 2019 Roam short. I jumped into a cable car and took a 20-minute ride to the top of the mountain which includes the Shymbulak Ski Resort, very active with lots of skiers, bars and restaurants, I was impressed. After my lunch of horse-meat, it was back down the mountain and to downtown.
Other sites I took in included the First Presidents Park, a collection of columns forming and ampitheatre with a fountain at the centre, it was built to commemorate Kazakhstan’s first president. There is also Koke Tobe a cable car ride to a fun park at the top of the mountain to take in a spectacular night view of the city below. There is also the Opera Theatre but as I had no tickets to the opera I could not access inside. My favourite place to spend time was the Green Bazaar, a huge complex of market stalls selling everything from fresh produce, meat, clothes, sun glasses and restaurants. Its full of locals haggling and purchasing goods and is a great place to get a bargain and do some people watching
After six days I was off on a flight for a few hours to Astana in the north. Note that after leaving Astana (rendering Wikipedia out of date) the city has changed its name to Nur-Sultan after the former president (and some suggest dictator) who has resigned just this week which is quite an honour, for this blog however I will use Astana as it was the name of the place when I stayed there nine days ago. If Almaty is the cultural capital then Astana is the economic and actual capital of the country and its population is half of Almaty’s. A city of relatively new high rises adorns the skyline and its almost appears like something from a sci fi universe, especially at night. It became the capital in 1997 and was also renamed at the time, just to confuse tourists further. I checked into my hotel and then decided on doing a self-guided walking tour at around -15 degrees. This weather was much colder than it the south of the country or anywhere I’d been on my 2019 roam and I was not well prepared for this, so gritting my teeth I trudged through the snow and cold to take in the city.
The most central and suggest iconic building is Baiterek Tower built to commemorate the moving of the capital, at night it appears almost like a gold light bulb towering over the park below, its quite a sight. I paid the entrance fee and went to the top 97 metres to the top and has quite spectacular views of the city and surrounding park. Unfortunately, the lighting meant any photos taken were essentially rendered useless. I left the tower and continued my walk soaring towers though an arched hotel / apartment complex passed a truly impressive Opera theater and onto a pyramid shaped Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex with five levels of world class shopping in an almost pyramid like shape, almost appearing like a tent inside as the roof is made of fabric, its very hard to describe and Ive not seen anything like it before. I went to a restaurant, refreshingly had a goulash that included beef and not horse-meat and then caught a cheap taxi home. Tip Download an app called Yandex Taxi, it’s a variation of Uber which is not available and is much cheaper than negotiating with cab drivers.
Astana being the new capital has a lot of money flowing into it and therefore has a lot of quality tourist sites. This includes a truly impressive Presidents Palace with an adorning blue shaped roof, the largest mosque in Central Asia, Hazrat Sultan. Kazakhs are Islamic and generally religious though the consumption of beer and the majority of women do not wear any form of headdress means that the country has a very Western feel to it. I went into the mosque which was bustling with people off to prayer, with a lot of shopping available. I then headed to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, an impressive 5 story pyramid building mainly used for events and as everything else Id seen so far in Astana quite surreal. After that was the National Museum of the Republic detailing the history of Kazakhstan including information on their space program, the history of the people, paleontology and Kazakh art which included several contemporary pieces.
There is one more place that I had to check out, Astana was the host of World Expo 2017 and an entire complex was built specifically to host it. On the way there my taxi went recklessly speeding through the traffic culminating in driving into an opposing traffic lane causing another car to speed off the road, break and crash though a sign. We then got out of the car, assisted the other vehicle by pushing it off the sign, got back into the cab and sped off again, the driver shrugging his shoulders saying “That’s Kazakhstan” no sharing of details or anything, Yandex Taxi might be cheap but buckle up as you don’t know what kind of car or driver you will get. A few minutes later I arrived at Expo, a series of halls and buildings adorned with dark blue glass and the central feature being a five-story sphere. Inside there were few customers, however the exhibits are still active so it was like going to the actual Expo, but instead of lots of people it was exclusively me. The exhibits are dedicated to the science of future energy, bio, solar, hydro, gas and space, each exhibit very impressive and spectacular with a lot to take in. A crazy amount of money went into building the centre and now that the expo was officially over its hard to see how its profitable, however Kazakhstan is a very affluent country, at least for those that have money, there is a large class divide between the rich and poor but then again that isn’t exactly unusual in most of the work
I was in Astana on the weekend so there was a lot of nightlife to enjoy, whether it was restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Being an Australian typically going out at night is after work on a Friday or possible starting 7pm to 8pm on a Saturday. Astana night clubs start to pack out at around midnight and are quite wild. After four hours being out I met some good people in one of the clubs and ended up drinking and dancing with them most of the following morning, talking and laughing about Kazakhstan and Australia, particularly why I would go to Astana as a tourist in winter, After many drinks I said goodbye to my new friends at about 4 in the morning and headed back to my hotel after what was equivalent of 8 hours drinking, needless to say the hangover was bad.
Astana in the north and Almaty in the south are two very different cities. Almaty having that traditional feel and access to nature whilst Astana being an almost surreal futuristic city with impressive infrastructure. What they have in common is the friendliness of the Kazakh people, smiling laughing and drinking. For a backpacking adventurer Almaty is the destination I’d suggest for anyone wanting outdoors, however if you want to see something completely different Astana is fascinating with its futuristic architecture and museums. Id also suggest that summer is a better time of year to see the country with the tourism season in full season so access to tours and adventure is cheaper and much more accessible. I enjoyed my winter experience and believe Id met many more Kazakhs than I otherwise would of in the summer and there is something beautiful about quiet cities in the day covered in snow. Anyway that’s if for Kazakhstan because as indicated I am currently in Georgia….